Our American commitment to perpetual war now seems fairly self-evident. We have been engaged in some kind of military conflict, almost without significant pause, since the end of the Vietnam War. Our current military action in Iraq and Afghanistan (and the wider Middle East) is nearing fifteen years and there is virtually no reason to see a real (final) end in sight with the election of an aggressive military advocate now in the White House. The president is surrounded by generals who believe in the goals and commitments of our present time in military history and thought the strategic use of force might change I am not convinced it will bed for the better. Let me explain.
Warmongers and militarists talk about bombing North Korea, or at least increasing our presence on their border, if necessary. They also talk about intervening in the Syrian civil war. We continually talk about “defeating ISIS” by “bombing the hell out of them” through using the full power of our vast military power to destroy them, a prospect that has no chance for lasting success. President George W. Bush sought to redefine America’s heroic role in the world by winning a war fought simultaneously in Iraq and Afghanistan. President Obama has continued to make war, through he ran against the Iraq War and did end major troop deployments. While Obama drew down the number of “boots on the ground” he upped the use of drone attacks and established a significant military presence for eight years that is designed to train others to fight “for” or “with” our American goals. Now we have no clear idea what the new Commander in Chief will do with our military.
The problem, according to esteemed author Andrew J. Bacevich, is our acceptance of “perpetual war.” This is a condition fostered by our great distance from the conflicts that America has continually waged beyond our homeland. As a nation we are detached from the real cost of war and yet we want safety and security so long as someone else pays the price for it. Our military services are a professional warrior class. Says one, “[We have traded our shared investment in service] for the civic virtues for [feel good] flag-waving.” We celebrate our heroes in commercials and at ballgames, standing and cheering as if we vicariously are involved in a great struggle for freedom, while those soldiers far away “defend” our freedom to remain removed from any great national sacrifice. We even fight these wars on the cheap, running up a growing debt that has no end in sight.
I was reminded of these facts last week by reading Breach of Trust: How Americans Failed Their Soldiers and Their Country (New York: Henry Holt, 2013), by Andrew J. Bacevich. Bacevich is a professor of history (Boston University) who served as an officer in the U. S. Army for twenty-three years. Bacevich says there is a yawning gap between America’s soldiers and the society in whose name they serve and fight. Even our former Secretary of Defense, Robert Gates, has acknowledged this reality by saying armed conflict has become an “abstraction” and military service “something for other people to do.”
Bacevich’s book takes stock of the damage done to our nation and its role in the world by sowing what this disconnect has brought about. He argues that national defense should be the world of “we the people.” Unless we take our responsibility much more seriously he warns that we will continue to fight “endless wars” for our security. We have hired a “foreign legion” and the fiscal price is considerably higher than we can afford over the long term.
The military’s professional ethic is historically threefold: “Duty, honor, and country.” It seems quite clear that the majority of us have no sense of obligation to such a creed. Alternatives to this present professional soldier model include various forms of required national service that do not obligate everyone to serve in the military, especially if their conscience forbids it. But these alternatives would require all, both rich and poor, to serve their country. Bacevich concludes: “The all-volunteer force is not a blessing. It has become a blight. Americans can, of course, choose to pretend otherwise, but those choosing such a course cannot be said to love their country. Nor can they be said to care about the well-being of those sent to fight on the country’s behalf” (196).
I am not a pacifist. I am sympathetic with the pacifist tradition as it has been defined and defended within Christian ethics. I did personally train in an ROTC program in high school. Many of my classmates went on to become officers. But with this background I have opposed every American conflict in my memory, from Vietnam to the present battles and advisory roles that we conduct in the Middle East. I want to “secure” our nation but I fear that those who talk the most about this security have little idea what is involved and even less commitment to how this can be done. We are so inured by our constant wars that our troops who die, even to this day, are almost forgotten by the general public. Did you notice that a Navy Seal team carried out a mission in Yemen last week that appears to have been botched, at least from the early reports? Did you know another U.S. solider died? Do you care? When will this “breach of trust” stop?